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What is the most effective leadership style?
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What is the most effective leadership style?

The question of what would be the best leadership behaviors starts from the idea that behaviors are developable and certain behaviors of leaders have more and better effect on employees than others. So if we know which behaviors are effective, then we can teach executives these behaviors and employees will contribute better to the organization. Can it be that simple?
Koen Marichal
by Koen Marichal | April 11, 2017
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Science has been searching for the answer to that question since the 1950s. And that search will continue for some time to come. Much depends, of course, on the context and, related to that, the desired result among employees. Is it about results, motivation, creativity, change or everything at once? Leadership styles are historically and contextually determined.

Know your preferred leadership style

Increasingly, the consensus is growing among leadership researchers that there are a limited number of dominant styles. Pearce and colleagues (2003) have examined leadership styles historically & empirically and arrive at four types of leadership styles. They are distinguished by their typical behavior, their focus and the situation in which they are optimally effective.

1. Directive leadership

In this type of leadership, the manager mainly keeps his or her eye on the ball: not the person counts, but the task and the result. Typical behaviors include goal setting and control, or the famous duo of command and control. The underlying idea is that people need direction and control. This idea proves its usefulness in crisis situations, when consensus is unattainable and, for example, when forming or starting teams. The downside of this style is dependence, obedience and lack of employee involvement.

2. Transactional leadership

Transactional leadership is primarily focused on motivating employees and is close to the "people management" idea that took off in many large organizations in the 1980s and 1990s along with HR processes such as performance and talent management. These leaders ensure that employees are properly rewarded according to their performance. This leadership style proves useful in environments where "pay for work" is important. The downside is that this is a conservative approach and reduces people to employees.

3. Transformational leadership

Transformational leaders bet on growth of their employees by motivating them intrinsically, treating employees as unique individuals, being an inspiring role model and developing vision. Their view of people is positive. People like to take responsibility when their talents and values are addressed. This style is prevalent in environments where change is needed and unity must be created from a long-term vision and mission.

4. Empowering leadership

The newest style in the list is empowering leadership. This style bets on participatory decision-making, encouraging self-leadership and teamwork. These leaders tend to make themselves small and allow their people to grow to their maximum potential. In the same family belongs 'servant leadership' This style is effective when organizations want to maximize the use of self-organizing teams and self-leadership.

This approach therefore departs less from the idea that a particular style is blissful. Contingency is important: which leadership style suits which situation or role? So situational leadership revisited. Using these different styles strategically is an important task for organizations today. Look not for the leader with four styles, but for the match between the leader's preferred style with the role he or she is taking on.

Not all leadership styles are virtuous

The above theory on leadership styles can come across as very relativistic: "it all depends." This is partially true. On the other hand, there are also leadership styles about which science is now clear that they have no or even a negative effect. The following are the best known:

Aversive leadership

Aversive leadership starts from a distinctly negative idea about employees. Typical behavior is intimidation and/or punishment. This behavior preys on employee self-confidence and motivation and thus will also only have a very short-term effect.

Laissez-faire leadership

Laissez-faire leadership implies that the manager excels primarily in absence and is not concerned with his or her people. This style has also been studied empirically and has no positive effect. Yet the danger of laissez-faire is real in many contexts: great pressure on managers, unclear authority and diffuse power relations easily create an atmosphere of "everyone pulls their plan.

Incidental leadership

In the same family, leading from exceptions belongs. Here the manager will only intervene in the event of incidents, complaints, deviations. This style does not increase performance either.

Organizations should develop a norm regarding undesirable leadership styles and thus take strict action against intimidating leadership behavior. Make it clear that employees should not be left to their own devices and disapprove of leadership based on incidents.

The new silver bullets in leadership

The effect of leadership style should not be exaggerated. Leadership is also in teams and in every individual. Pearce & Manz (2005) call them the new "silver bullets" in leadership because they are so important in knowledge work. When team or network collaboration becomes important, good practices in organizing, decision making, conflict resolution and learning are needed. Further, organizations can gain in collective leadership if they encourage and develop self-leadership in everyone.

Self- and shared leadership also needs hierarchical leadership. Directing behavior is needed to develop and keep practices intact, for example. Empowering leadership is needed for people to grow. Transformational leadership pushes toward change and a shared vision and mission. Transactional leaders organize transparency and fair compensation. The big difference is that these leaders do this from the mindset that it is not all about them. They make themselves a link in the big picture and recognize their limits.

In conclusion: leading with style

The fundamental change in leadership development is to stop striving for uniformity in leadership. It is not about leadership style but about leading with style. As Nietzsche (1887) so beautifully put it, "To 'give style' to one's character - a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye." Allow executives to fully discover and develop their own style and create a shared leadership culture as an organization.

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